fb-pixel Skip to main content

Brotherhood on display at Emerson College

Donnie Collins (center) has been aided by fraternity mates Christian Bergren-Aragon ( left) and Ryan Sweeney.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

On Monday morning, few outside his circle of family, friends, teachers, and classmates likely had heard of Donnie Collins. By Wednesday, he was internationally famous.

Collins, a sophomore at Emerson, seems in many ways a typical college student. He loves J.R.R. Tolkien and "The Colbert Report." He obsessively updates his Tumblr blog.

But it is his differences that have caused his story to go viral: Born female, Collins is transitioning into a man, and members of his campus fraternity are giving new meaning to the word brotherhood through an extraordinary act of support.

"I'm really grateful for that," he said in an interview Wednesday near the downtown campus. "It's taken me a while to realize that I can't possibly repay them in any way except to accept their help."


Collins, 20, from Alexandria, Va., has lived as a man since entering Emerson in 2011 to study visual media arts. He was looking forward to an operation to remove breast tissue and reconstruct his chest, before learning recently that his medical insurance would not cover the $8,125 cost.

The claim was denied only three days after he began the pledge process for Phi Alpha Tau, a professional communicative arts fraternity. When his new brothers learned insurance would not help, they sprang into action.

Christian Bergren-Aragon, 19, a sophomore from Colorado, called fraternity brothers Ryan Sweeney and Danny Irwin, and the three quietly created a page for Collins on the fund-raising website indiegogo, asking friends to donate but not to tell Collins.

Initially, the brothers held little hope of raising a large sum, Bergren-Aragon said; they wanted to show their support for Collins and to educate a few people about transgender issues.

Then Out.com — a website covering lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues — learned of the effort and wrote about Collins. The story, with links to video appeals by Collins and his brothers, was posted Monday and quickly attracted the attention of the Huffington Post, Gawker, and other outlets. It was first reported by the BostInno news website.


"I don't think we expected it to explode on every media platform," Collins said.

By Wednesday afternoon, the page had raised more than $17,000. Collins plans to give all money raised above the costs of his surgery to the Jim Collins Foundation, a Connecticut nonprofit that funds gender-transition surgeries. The late Jim Collins and Donnie Collins are not related.

Donnie Collins didn't seek the attention — at first he tried to avoid it. As he entered college, he said, he wanted to blend in with male classmates, but it was difficult. He hadn't begun testosterone therapy, so his voice and appearance were those of a much younger boy.

"I said to myself all the time, 'Just think Doogie Howser; just think Doogie Howser,' " he said, referring to the old television series about a teenage doctor.

This week, with short, reddish brown hair, plaid shirt, fitted jeans, and black sneakers, Collins looked like a young man on any college campus. But at a time when he could blend into the crowd, he found himself on newspaper pages and television and computer screens around the world.

He said he was glad for the opportunity to talk frankly about what it means to be transgender, and he understood there's a learning curve.


"I think it's also an issue of a vocabulary that hasn't been shared," he said. "I didn't learn the word 'transgender' until I was 17 years old, and within a week of that I came out."

Soon, he hopes, life will return to normal.

"I'm really looking forward to next year being about me and not about my transition," he said.

While the public response has been overwhelmingly positive, Collins said he has seen some backlash, including comments from transgender people frustrated to see him receive such attention and support when others struggle quietly, often in isolation. Some question the message he is sending about what it means to be transgender.

Collins is sensitive to their perspectives. He said transgender people transition into new gender roles in many ways, and some don't choose surgery. For him, he said, it is necessary to remove the breasts that never felt right.

The surgery will eliminate the need to bind his chest and the self-consciousness that leads him to walk with shoulders forward, to hold back even when embracing a friend.

There is a lot of affection coming Collins's way, from friends who stop in campus hallways to offer encouragement to the fraternity brothers who, he said, have quickly grown to feel like a family.

The brothers say Phi Alpha Tau is far from the image of fraternities seen in films like "Animal House." It is a professional fraternity for communications students, but also a community that embraces diversity.

Two years ago, they said, it rewrote its bylaws to welcome the group's first transgender member.


"It's just very much the Emerson community and the Emerson way to do things," Bergren-Aragon said. "And it's not so much that we're better than anybody else. We're just blessed to be in a very supportive community."

Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.